Thursday, October 13, 2011

Philly Cheese Steak and Elvis Cookies

One thing I really love doing in the kitchen is taking a basic recipe and making it awesome. This is probably due in part to the fact that I don't really follow recipes, ever. The funny thing about this is that I have to have a recipe before I'll try to make something, even though I rarely follow it exactly.

One of my favorite ways of doing this was tweaking recipes at the restaurant where I worked. Every time I ordered something I added special notes about how I wanted it made (which I'm sure all of the cooks loved): Put pepper jack cheese on my sandwich instead of colby jack. And instead of ranch I want ranch and salsa mixed together. Oh, and throw some onion rings on top for the heck of it! And things like, What would happen if you fried a blintz? Or my personal favorite, Ignore whatever I just rang in, I really want you to make *insert something completely different and not on the menu but with more or less the same ingredients*. While I was being a total pain in the ass, pretty much everything I tweaked came out awesome. I converted my co-workers to order my creations and sometimes I'd even recommend them to a customer (Key Lime Pie with a cup of strawberries, anyone?).

Another thing I often do is try to recreate menu items at home. This is how my awesome Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich was born. Way back when I first started working at the restaurant, we had an amazing Philly sandwich on Parmesan-crusted sourdough bread on the menu and eventually took it off for reasons unbeknown to me. So one day I made it at home and it might be even better than the original:

Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich
Sliced roast beef
Sliced onion
Sliced green pepper
Sourdough bread
Grated Parmesan cheese
Shredded mozzarella cheese

Butter one side of each slice of bread then sprinkle buttered side with Parmesan cheese. Put roast beef, onion, and green pepper on one side of a skillet at medium-low heat and bread on the other side (butter-side down). Sprinkle mozzarella cheese on top of bread. Stir meat and veggies until warm, then place on half the bread slices. Top with other bread slices with Parmesan cheese on the outside. The whole process should take less than 10 minutes total, with probably 5-6 minutes cook time. It doesn't take long to heat up the meat and veggies and takes even less time to grill the bread, so work quickly!

End result: Awesome-ness
So that's a pretty typical conversion to awesome. Today, however, I took things to a new level: Elvis Cookies.
As everyone should know, Elvis Presley was known for his peanut butter, banana, honey, and bacon sandwiches. I'm not yet brave enough the throw the bacon in yet, but the combination of the other three is like the supreme trifecta of win in any context. Peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwich—Check. Peanut butter, banana and honey on a bagel—Check. Banana pancakes topped with peanut butter and honey—Check. 
So I've known for a while that you can use honey and a substitute for sugar, and recently I learned that you can use a banana (among other things) instead of eggs in certain recipes, so I thought to myself, I could make peanut butter cookies with a banana instead of eggs and honey instead of sugar and they would be Elvis CookiesSo I found a basic peanut butter cookie recipe and went to work:

Elvis Cookies
1/2 cup soft butter
1/2 cup peanut butter (could probably add more, if desired)
2/3 cup honey
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2-1 banana
1 1/4 cup flour
I might just go crazy and add bacon bits next time

Mix butter and peanut butter until creamy. Add honey, baking powder, and baking soda. Add vanilla and banana. Add flour. For the riskier bakers, throw in some bacon bits right about now. If it is too sticky (and it probably will be), put it in the fridge for an hour or two. Roll dough into 1-inch balls, coat with sugar and place on baking sheet 2 inches apart from one another. Smash cookie balls down with a fork. Bake at 375°F for about 9 minutes or until golden brown on top.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Elvis Cookies have left the oven!

Vo├Čla! I was pretty impressed that they actually looked just like regular cookies when they came out of the oven. They were soft and chewy and tasted very banana-y, which is kind of weird for a cookie, but still delicious. I think next time I will add more peanut butter and/or less banana because I feel like the peanut butter was a little overshadowed by the banana. Also, I kind of want to go completely crazy and put bacon in a cookie. I was telling my mom about this idea tonight and she told me that once I put bacon in them, they aren't cookies anymore. Instead, she said, they were hors d'oeuvres. I disagree on the basis that I would still serve them for dessert and not as appetizers.

I told my husband about my Elvis Cookie project and he's pretty skeptical of the whole thing, but I think when he comes home tomorrow he'll understand. I think the real issue is that he doesn't like fruit. Because he's a freak of nature. But he likes banana bread, so I think he'll love them once he tries them.

I just can't tell him about the bacon next time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The cost of a meal

I recently read this article about the cost of cooking versus the cost of fast food. The current idea is that cooking costs less than fast food, but in actuality those numbers only take into account the price of labor when it is outsourced (e.g., fast food). When you factor in the potential labor costs for cooking at home, the price more than triples and makes the convenience of fast food seem worth the extra couple bucks.

I have mixed feelings about the idea of introducing the labor costs to home-cooked meals. First off, unless you are a chef, you don't get paid to cook. Secondly, unless you'd otherwise be working every waking minute, you won't be out a portion of your paycheck either. On the other hand, many people do find cooking to be a lot of effort and not a lot of fun, so it may sort of seem like working without getting paid, so it is something to consider.

To that end, the author proposes we place a greater emphasis on the joys of cooking, and I couldn't agree more. I love being able to provide a gift so intimate as nourishment to my friends and family and being able to share that sense of community with them. I also like having total control over the things I put in my body, and I sleep easily knowing so much more about what I ate and where it came from. I like trying new things and seeing if I can make my food even better through little tweaks here and there, and I absolutely love the sense of accomplishment I feel when I've pulled off a truly successful meal. Not enough people know these joys, and it's such a shame.

The problem is, as Michael Pollan also pointed out, nobody really knows how to cook anymore. Who is going to teach us the joys of cooking if no one can cook? Sure, some people know how to cook, but upper-middle-class white people have a bit of an edge over inner-city African-Americans, in that they don't live in food deserts and can afford to take a class or two if they're so inclined.

The author suggested that the public school system take on the task, to which I scoff and say, "Good luck with that!" With the egregious budget cuts the entire education system is taking, there's no way anyone's gonna convince schools to re-instate home economics classes. I was lucky enough to take two sessions of home economics while in middle school and I can tell you right now I learned little to nothing about cooking and barely any more about sewing. This from a predominantly white mid-size town with excellent facilities (5-6 full kitchen work stations and about 30 sewing machines).

While I think utilizing the school system has the potential to be highly effective if done right (with a focus on money management and food preparation), I don't think this is feasible unless we find a magic money tree somewhere. Instead, we need to focus on what we can do and what we can teach. Everyone knows how to cook something, even if it's just a grilled cheese sandwich. Start there. Teach your kids how to make the best grilled cheese sandwich there ever was. Then send them to their aunt or their neighbor or their church to learn something new. Provide opportunities to learn whenever possible and try to learn with them. Help them to associate cooking with their sense of community and to take pride in their endeavors.

On the other side of this, we need to make infrastructure changes to eliminate food deserts and make healthy foods an affordable alternative through subsidies and education.

But a lot of these ideas are long-term goals. What can we do right now to make dining in more affordable? My answer: Cook in bulk. Last Tuesday I made about 12 servings of lasagna and 7 servings of pancakes and put most of them in the freezer. Sure, it was a lot of work on Tuesday, but over a week later I have severely cut down my cooking time and I have something I can grab'n'go when I'm rushing between work and school. If your freezer is big enough, cook a few different things all at once so you have options instead of eating lasagna every day (not that I'm complaining!). Cooking 12 servings of lasagna instead of 2 servings probably took an extra 10 minutes and I got an extra 10 meals out of the work. Same goes for the pancakes: A double batch will take 10 extra minutes but will double your servings at the end. Furthermore, it will save money in addition to time because you can buy food in bulk instead of buying single-serving containers.

Tada! Look at me try and solve the world's problems like I think they're easy. Or at least hand out a couple crutches to get by on.

Urban Gardening

When we first moved to Houston, my husband said we should take our old pantry shelving and grow some plants on them on our patio. I kind of gave him a look of skepticism and we didn't really talk about it again after that. It'll never work, I thought. Between the two of us there wasn't a single green thumb, or even a green toe. Every plant that has come into our home has left it dead faster than you can say, "Hey honey, did you ever water the plants?"

Nonetheless, the old pantry shelves are still out on the patio, waiting for someone to re-assemble them and put them to good use. Then the other day, Whole Foods posted this video about growing your own herbs, and I thought it was pretty cool.

I brought up the video with my husband and he said something to the effect of, "See? I told you you'd want to do it." I'm still not convinced that we can pull it off, but at least now I'm vaguely interested.

My two major concerns are 1) if we can keep anything alive that doesn't whine when it's not fed, and 2) if we have enough sunlight for anything to grow out there.

The video talks about how some herbs need more light than others, but I'm not sure my south-east facing patio gets even 4-6 hours of sunlight per day. I mean, it doesn't get satellite service and barely gets cell phone service, so how could the sun possibly get through, right? I should maybe check that out sometime. When I'm home during the day. Like I was today... Whoops.

I guess I'm also concerned about the so-called "winter" down here. What happens when it freezes? Will all my plants die? Can I fix that? Am I really responsible enough to check the forecast to preemptively save the plants from their utter demise (I'm pretty sure the answer is a resounding NO to this one)? Why did I think it was a good idea to start thinking about this project in the fall?

So more than likely I'm going to try to make this happen because I think it would be really cool to be able to go out and pluck the herbs I need for my food and use them that day. Plus if you keep them alive long enough you can actually save money! But I have a feeling it won't be until after "winter" is mostly over. In the meantime, I intend to do some research to figure out a logistics plan to keep plants alive. Maybe I'll adopt a house plant for the winter and see if I don't kill it (*insert sarcastic chuckle here*).

More later.